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New marriage-poll results: a dramatic change in voters' views — or a fluke?

New marriage-poll results: a dramatic change in voters' views — or a fluke?
REUTERS/Erin Siegal
The new poll found that 52 percent would vote for the amendment, while 37 percent oppose it.

A June poll showed support for the effort to amend Minnesota’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage eroding rapidly, with 49 percent of those surveyed planning to vote against the measure, vs. 43 percent in support.

A poll released Sunday, however, shows 52 percent voting yes vs. 37 percent no.

Both surveys were conducted by reputable polling concerns with respectable track records. Neither relied on a methodology that invites suspicion. And no dramatic, opinion-changing turn of events occurred in the interim.

So is the 20-point swing real? And if so, what explains it?

We asked Bill Morris, principal of Minneapolis-based Decision Resources, which polls voters on a range of local and regional policy issues including, this year, the marriage amendment.

“If this is correct, then what’s happened is supporters have been able to make really significant inroads into groups that had been leaning against the amendment, if not totally opposed to it,” he said. “But no one I’m aware of is seeing that.

“We’re still showing [the ballot question] within a four- to six-point range, with absolutely no breakout by one group or another,” he added.

Unusual data breakdown

Additionally, the unusual breakdown of answers in the poll’s “crosstabs” — the subsets of data in which respondents identify their gender, political affiliation and other characteristics — gives him pause.

In June, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling (PPP) reported that 49 percent of Minnesota voters oppose the idea of inserting a gay marriage ban into the Minnesota Constitution, up from to 44 percent four months earlier [PDF]. Support for the ballot question had fallen from 48 percent to 43 percent.

The new poll was conducted by SurveyUSA, a company that undertakes surveys for television and radio stations, in this case KSTP-TV. It found that 52 percent would vote for the amendment, while 37 percent oppose it. Another 5 percent would not vote on the issue; if they cast ballots but leave the amendment blank, it will count as a “no” vote under Minnesota law.

The new numbers also contradict a SurveyUSA poll conducted in Minnesota in May, when slightly more than half of respondents agreed with President Barack Obama’s then newly announced stance in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, compared to 42 percent who disagreed.

Add to this research that shows voters underreport their anticipated votes in favor of a gay-marriage ban by an average of  7 percentage points, most likely out of fear of disclosing bias to interviewers.

Dramatic swing hard to explain

Dramatic swings in public opinion are possible, Morris said. But he’s hard-pressed to explain this one.

“I could see this happening if suddenly the [amendment] proponents had gone on TV and spent a couple million dollars on ads and followed them with a direct mail campaign,” he said.

Over the course of three days last week, SurveyUSA surveyed 552 people it determined were likely 2012 voters using a “blended sample,” or “mixed mode,” which Morris explained is a pool of possible respondents that includes households with land lines only, unlisted numbers and cell phones only. This is important because cell-only households are more likely to be liberal, affluent and educated.

SurveyUSA poll pie chart
SurveyUSA

For this survey, 74 percent of respondents were “interviewed” on their home telephone “in the recorded voice of a professional announcer,” SurveyUSA reported. “Respondents not reachable on a home telephone (26 percent of likely voters) were shown a questionnaire on their smartphone, tablet or other electronic device.”

While polling using a computerized “interviewer” isn’t new — PPP’s June Minnesota poll was conducted by a recorded voice — it’s the first time Morris has heard of a blended poll that includes a written survey.

Perhaps a more active voter segment?

“My hunch on that is that you’re getting [texted responses from] a much more active segment and you’re getting people who are much more strongly concerned with the particular issue you are raising,” he said.

More perplexing, he said, are the crosstabs. For starters, there is no gender gap in the July poll, despite the fact that women are almost always much less likely to say they will vote to outlaw gay marriage.

Next, he noted that 44 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 said they will vote no, and only 38 percent of those 35 to 50. “It not only reverses what we’ve been finding and other polls have been finding, it’s in the vicinity of 20 points,” he said.

At the same time, the number of respondents who identify themselves as Tea Party sympathizers was just 6 percent, vs. the 14 percent Morris is used to seeing in Minnesota polls. And opposition among DFLers, pegged at 54 percent by SurveyUSA, is much higher than usual 2-to-1 ratio.

Twin Cities results quite different

Nor do the crosstabs laying out where respondents live jibe with other polls, he said. SurveyUSA found 49 percent of Twin Cities residents favor the amendment, while 40 percent oppose it. In Morris’ polls and those he’s seen, opposition is, again, 2 to 1 — even in conservative western suburbs.

And SurveyUSA found 64 percent of residents of northeastern Minnesota would vote for the amendment and 29 percent against it, the exact opposite of what Morris’ data show.

So what explains the divergent results? Morris can offer a few possibilities — none of which suggests shoddy or biased polling.

A few possible reasons

The margin of error reported by SurveyUSA is 4.3 percent, he noted, which is no higher than 95 percent of polls. The other 5 percent, however, can have much, much higher error rates.

Also, the firm did not report whether it “weighted” the results. To offset, say, an imbalance in male and female respondents, some pollsters adjust each answer to count for more or less than a single vote to compensate. Morris’ firm doesn’t do much weighting because it’s too easy to end up with a skewed result, he said.

“If we accept that this is accurate, proponents have somehow managed to assemble a coalition,” Morris said. “And a remarkably tight one.”

This is, of course, exactly what proponents are saying about the new poll. It’s a good tactic, and at the heart of the vote no camp’s campaign playbook, too. Still, for the new numbers to be solid, it would have to be working unusually quickly and well.

“They’ve managed to convert a number of folks that would normally be in the other camp,” Morris said. “And they’ve done it without much in the way of a visible campaign.”

In the end, he sees no obvious explanation. It might, he offered, just be “flukey.”

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Comments (28)

Predictable results

Polls taken in many of the recent amendment battles, California certainly, have given the sand-is-food crew cause for celebration, only to be proven to have been "flukey" where the rubber meets the road (the ballot box).

I have no reason other than observation for saying so, but it seems to me that people might bend to perceived peer pressure by agreeing with it when discussing issues which the media and pop culture elite take under their wings, but follow their hearts in the privacy of the ballot box.

It really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone when this amendment passes handily.

Another possibility

An interesting comment from a reader:

One difference between the two polls is how the marriage question was asked; this could explain the difference between the two results:

PPP: Should the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota? (yes / no / not sure) http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2011/PPP_Release_MiscellaneousMN_060512.pdf

SurveyUSA: An amendment to the Minnesota Constitution on the ballot defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Will you vote FOR the amendment? Against the amendment? Or not vote on the measure? http://www.surveyusa.com/client/PollReport.aspx?g=7eeab57a-eb71-47e3-aed7-5cab8493d94f

who isn't anxious

polls

I think the fact that these polls don't compute is a good sign or those of us who oppose this amendment. I suspect the varying methods of interviewing are at least partly responsible. I think a great many people haven't made up their minds yet, but at the polls will probably just skip it if they aren't sure.

Questions

I think it's likely that a disproportionately high number of respondents simply don't understand the question.

Don't be lulled asleep by presumptions about these polls.

This column, and the whole poll-taking industry, sell the assumption that OF COURSE these polls are accurate. Therefore, if results appear to indicate otherwise, it's necessary to find some obscure or arcane explanation in order to maintain the myth. When all these explanations fail, the final refuge: it's a "fluke". You know, just some blip in reality.

Here's another possiblity: they are simply inaccurate in the first place.

Never mind the alleged "margin of error" - this is an anesthetic administered with every poll.

Other sources of error

My understanding is that this was a survey of "likely voters" which in July is an awfully hard to quantify group.and that Republicans were over-represented in the survey. Moreover, when you are talking about a statewide sample of just 552 people one confused person or one intentionally presenting odd answers to a machine can impact the results. The only poll that counts is the one in NOvember.

Complex questions

I do think we tend to exaggerate the reliability of polls. The wide disparity of these polls really does undermine the credibility of polls generally. But as long as there are people who are willing to pay for them, polls will be with us.

This is the same poll that

This is the same poll that claims just a 46-40 lead for Obama over Romney. I'll wait to see more polls before rushing to judgment.

Bad slogan may mean bad result

Amendment opponents are using the tagline "Don't limit the right to marry." Informed voters know that under the current state of Minnesota law, there is no right to gay marriage. Equating a no vote with unequivocal support for gay marriage will undermine the opposition campaign. I intend to vote no because I think the amendment is unfair and mean-spirited, and I do not think the Constitution is a Christmas tree for everyone's pet causes (not excepting or sparing the earmarks and other bad ideas that passed in previous elections). This does not mean I support gay marriage - call me a persuadable skeptic.

I probably typify the 4 to 8 percent of voters who swung the wrong way to pass Proposition 8 in California. Those voters had a dilemma - the CA Supreme Court had already shoved gay marriage down their throats, so they had to choose between a constitutional mandate and a constitutional lockout. We don't have that problem in Minnesota, so perhaps the opposition slogan should be, "Say NO to constitutional lockouts."

A possible influencing event?

Does anyone think that the Sec. of State's involvement in changing the wording of the ballot question without warning could be an influencing event? I remember reading about that move and thinking, "That seems a little shady... Whelp, there's something for people to get upset about."

Please be careful with details

Ritchie did not change the ballot question. He changed the title, which is right in line with Minnesota Statute which gives responsibility for coming up with the title for ballot questions to the Secretary of State.

Please keep these details straight. They are important.

Separation of powers

Miss Berg wrote:

"Ritchie did not change the ballot question. He changed the title..."

The Legislative branch writes the laws, the Executive branch enforces the law. The title of the Amendment is "A bill for an act proposing an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution; adding a section to article XIII recognizing marriage as only a union between one man and one woman".

Please keep these details straight, Miss Berg. They are important.

For the third time

It is not a law - it is a bill proposing an amendment. Try to understand and read the statute involved in the title issue - it is especially important for you!

For the third time

the Legislative branch writes the laws.

The title of the Amendment is "A bill for an act proposing an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution; adding a section to article XIII recognizing marriage as only a union between one man and one woman".

The Minnesota legislature wrote the legislation. Try to understand the separation of powers, Mr. Foreman, it is especially important for you.

Just keep ignoring the statute -

If you don't like it, it must be wrong! This is not legislation. It has no force of law whatsoever unless the citizens vote sufficiently in favor of it.

The legislature writes the laws.

You, for the sake of your political beliefs, do not want to accept this objective truth.

My details are just fine

He wrote the ballot title, as Minnesota statute directs him to do:

"The secretary of state, with approval of the attorney general, prepares a short title to identify each amendment on the ballot. The ballot question specified by the legislature appears under the title. The text of the constitution as it would appear if amended is not printed on the ballot."
(see: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/ss/ssconamd.pdf )

NEAL KRASNOFF

Neal - Pat is not being tough enough on you. The law is pretty clear. The Sec of State gets to decide the title. Period. The lawsuit challenging the change will be interesting but as far as I can tell, they don't have a leg to stand on. See Mn Statute 204D.15.

204D.15 PINK BALLOT; FORM; DISTRIBUTION; SAMPLE BALLOT.
Subdivision 1. Titles for constitutional amendments. The secretary of state shall provide
an appropriate title for each question printed on the pink ballot. The title shall be approved by the
attorney general, and shall consist of not more than one printed line above the question to which it
refers. At the top of the ballot just below the heading, a conspicuous notice shall be printed stating
that a voter's failure to vote on a constitutional amendment has the effect of a negative vote.

JIM BALL

Once again, in plain, clear Englisg:

- The Legislative branch writes the laws.

- The Executive branch enforces the law.

- The title of the Amendment is "A bill for an act proposing an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution; adding a section to article XIII recognizing marriage as only a union between one man and one woman"

- The secretary of state shall provide an appropriate title for each question.

- The "appropriate title" was supplied by the representative of the People of the State of Minnesota, and the Secretary of State is commended by law to approve an appropriate title and not change it for political reasons.

ok...typos...

That should be "English" and "commanded".

Who bothers to answer?

I'm thinking polls will get less and less reliable as the electorate grows more impatient with robo-calls. At our house, we simply don't pick up if we don't know the caller. We've had it. So is there another oddball bias creeping in that we'll need to find new ways to combat or over-interpret and misunderstand? One reader mentioned people deliberately giving odd answers - contradictory, mischievous or whatever. That's a possibility, or maybe those who answer just don't have any form of caller-ID, or are desperately lonely or killing time before their favorite show comes on. (Seriously, does anyone call during American Idol?)

As for the wording, it was already slanted, and the change isn't a lot better. The original "Recognition" implies that marriage between a man and a woman isn't currently recognized or is under threat. "Limiting" comes a little closer to the true intent, but what we're really talking about is a ban. "Should gay citizens be forever banned from marrying in Minnesota?"

One overlooked detail...

Under Minnesota law, if a voter leaves the question blank on the ballot for a question that would propose to amend the Minnesota Constitution--but otherwise votes on other races, it is considered a "no" vote by default.

I'm surprised this is not mentioned. Then again, the way politics are going these days, little surprises me any longer.

It's noted in the story...

..third paragraph after the "data" subhead.

Only one poll counts

Mr. Swift once again displays his ideological credentials by creating a whole category of people – “…sand-is-food crew” – and then pretending to know what those mythical people think (and how they vote).

Actually, the “not voting=a ‘no’ vote” IS mentioned in the piece (3rd paragraph of the “Unusual Data Breakdown” section). though I’m not sure the general public is aware of that little quirk.

Beyond that, two things occur to me:

First, we don’t really know. Polling, even the best polling, is an inexact art. I don’t use the term “science,” because, to me at least, use of that term implies a degree of replicability in results that I don’t see demonstrated by polling firms, at least not with the sort of consistency that would convince me we’re dealing with a science. Polls can be, and sometimes are, very accurate, but they’re also sometimes, and sometimes spectacularly, wrong. Not everyone answers honestly, or the sample is too small, or it’s skewed in some way that the polling agency hasn’t thought of or isn’t aware of.

Second, I’m mostly on board with Gail O’Hare. I tend not to respond to polls myself, and sophistry aside, what we’re really talking about – and it’s already in state law – is a ban. Straightforward language would simply say that, but if the proposed amendment actually used that straightforward language, that, too, might influence the results of any polls.

As another responder has already mentioned, the only poll that counts is the one in November. If we actually KNEW whether the public at large supported or opposed this proposed amendment ahead of time, there’d be no need to poll at all ahead of the election.

What abou Voter ID?

Any polls on the other amendment?

heh

You don't want to know, Paul.

Like your prediction

On the health care ruling?

Dennis

You're going to be very disappointed come next November.